Arrogance is one of the deadly sins in sports. It might, in fact, be the unholiest of sports crimes. Somehow (and this is hard to fathom) it leaves a stigma with fans more enduring than beating up a pregnant wife. Terrell Owens didn’t become one of America’s most infamous athletes because he has ever committed an actual misdemeanor or felony. He hasn’t. His were always crimes of ego, crimes against games.

This is such an odd thing about sports because of the lopsided coverage, because of the distorted way we care. Which is worse . . . the guy who is mouthy and cocky while playing dominoes or the guy who gets a DUI? Everyone would answer DUI guy, right? But now put mouthy, cocky domino guy at your table, beating you and reminding you of it, and it might make you angrier than if he drives home really drunk after losing to you. That’s what happens when competitive passion clouds, as it so often does with fandom, emotion trampling logic.

Not to mention that we can pretend a DUI or a domestic incident with a wife is a one-time mistake whereas arrogance is seen as more of an enduring character flaw. So humble, contrite Donte’ Stallworth can get more forgiveness from fans after killing a man in a drunken-driving accident than Owens does for being a bad teammate soaked in ego. Head bowed, Stallworth profusely said “I’m sorry;” Owens doesn’t and won’t. As with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, defiance is his defense mechanism.

It is so easy for an athlete to receive forgiveness for this sin, though. So easy. And without even having to actually erase or even conceal the arrogance, either. Giant Shaquille O’Neal has offered the blueprint, and Giant Brian Wilson is following it now. Just do things with a wink and a smile. Not all the time. Just occasionally enough that it will thaw even the anger when the arrogance appears. The fan, by definition, wants to root for you. A smile and a wink gives more reasons, reminding everyone amid this super-serious coverage that this is all supposed to be fun and games.

There is arrogance and ego in every athlete. It is a survival skill in their work-place jungle, a necessary tool. Some guys are just better at keeping it hidden. But what do you think that was when Tom Brady, sixth-round pick, introduced himself to Patriots owner Bob Kraft for the very first time by saying, “I’m the best decision you’ve ever made”?

Confidence is something you keep on the inside, to yourself; arrogance is just when it slips out of your mouth. That wasn’t mere confidence Larry Bird was spouting when he told everyone in the room at the three-point contest that they were playing for second place.

But Shaq and Wilson seem to understand the media game more than most. Too many athletes take themselves too seriously. That’s volatile when mixed with fans and media who also take their athletes and games too seriously, too. Newsman Dan Rather offers this as life advice: Take your work seriously but not yourself. You would be amazed what that buys you, even though it isn’t the easiest thing to absorb in a stadium full of people paying to worship you.

Have you seen all the jerky stuff on Shaq’s resume? He has torched legends like Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. He has called Erik Dampier “Erika” and Chris Bosh the RuPaul of NBA big men and gone after Dwight Howard, too. He has bullied trainers and Chris Quinn and behaved in a way that is oddly small. He never wanted to work hard, and helped oust Stan Van Gundy in Miami when pushed to do so. Given his overwhelming gifts and size, and his underwhelming work ethic, you could argue that he underachieved.

Re-read that paragraph. That’s quite the sports rap sheet. And it is partial. Imagine all of those words coming out of the mouth of an unsmiling brooder. Shaq has harmed teams and coaches and teammates just like Owens. The differences: Only one of them jokes a lot. Only one of them works very hard, too.

(And only one of them got up on a nightclub stage to ask Kobe how his rear end tastes.)

Another example of what a little bit of humor can buy you: After Game 6 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James made some comments about how people who hated him had to go back to their normal lives and normal problems. It was, depending on your perspective, either benign, honest, condescending or offensive. But James, you will remember, is guilty of crimes of ego, of televised arrogance, that have made only his entire image unravel. He apologized for the comments a few days later.

A few days before that, though, Charles Barkley said something more overt and poisonous about fans who had been heckling him about not winning a ring. He said they were “losers” and “idiots” and worked at McDonald’s. He also said that he was very rich and very successful, and they weren’t. He said, out loud, the actual words that people were assigning to James . . . words James never said. But Barkley, who once threw a man through a plate-glass window and told the judge that his only regret was that they weren’t on the second floor, has a history of joking and winking that James doesn’t. His arrogance gets filed under a jester’s honesty. He is even respected for telling it like it is.

Soon, Shaq will sit next to Barkley on the best sports studio show in America.


The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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